A new domestic violence decision, M.D.C. v. J.A.C., not only confirms that defendants in a domestic violence proceeding are entitled to due process, but also goes a step further by asking the Supreme Court’s Family Practice Committee to determine whether the should require judiciary staff and law enforcement to inform and review with defendants the allegations against him/her, as well as what to expect at a Final Restraining Order (“FRO”) hearing.  In the manual’s present form, such explanations are only required for the plaintiff.  This suggested update confirms that each party is entitled to reciprocal due process and to be informed of their rights to present evidence, testimony and witnesses, as well as to seek adjournments if additional time is needed to prepare his/her case.

In M.D.C., the trial court treated the defendant in a particularly egregious manner during an FRO hearing in which it entered an FRO against the defendant.  Although the plaintiff had the opportunity to present her witness, the trial court did not offer the defendant an adjournment when her only witness (her mother) was unavailable on the trial date, nor did the court advise the defendant of his right to seek such adjournment when she explained her witness’ unavailability.  Additionally, while the plaintiff was given the time to present her testimony and even “prompted”by the court to testify about prior acts of domestic violence outside of the four corners of the complaint, the trial court repeatedly disrupted the defendant’s cross-examination of the plaintiff and required the defendant to limit her questions to the domestic violence complaint.  Ultimately, the defendant ended her cross-examination out of frustration.  This is especially material because the FRO was entered in part on credibility determinations that the defendant was precluded from exploring without justification.  Finally, although it seems the plaintiff was able to present her case in the manner desired with assistance from the trial court, the trial court precluded the defendant from introducing photographic and video evidence, which the defendant claimed refuted the plaintiff’s testimony, without making any findings on the record to support this preclusion.

The Appellate Division reviewed the long-standing history of a defendant’s due process rights in New Jersey domestic violence cases and, in part, general litigation, including, without limitation,  (1) a defendant’s due process are violated when he/she is denied the right to cross-examine, which is the “most effective device known to our trial procedure for seeking the truth”; (2) courts should advise pro se litigants of their right to seek an adjournment to call necessary witnesses and the failure to offer and/or grant the adjournment violates due process; (3) the failure to consider evidence without any reason for doing so is also a due process violation; and, (4) while plaintiffs seeking an FRO may amplify their allegations of prior domestic violence history, they must amend the complaint in order to place defendants on notice of such allegations and afford them an opportunity to prepare a defense.

Person with finger on the scales of justice, illustrating concept of divorce

In light of all due process violations in this case, it should come as no surprise that the defendant here is using his soapbox to enhance the rights for all defendants in due process cases.  From a practice standpoint, having interned in the domestic violence courts of Essex County while in law school and then observing such hearings as a law clerk in Union County, and now appearing often in such courts throughout northern New Jersey, it is undeniable that a significant amount of these hearings occur between pro se litigants on one or both sides.   If the plaintiffs are the only party who are advised in advance of their rights and how to conduct themselves at an FRO Hearing, a defendant can argue that the plaintiffs are automatically receiving the upper hand at trial.  Although the domestic violence defendant is not facing a criminal conviction (at least at the FRO Hearing), the defendant’s rights are severely impacted by having an FRO entered, including having their name on a national registry that can impact future employment, support obligations, custody and parenting time determinations, prohibitions from carrying/owning weapons that were legally procured, which can also impact employment, etc.  Criminal defendants are required to be advised of their rights and, perhaps, so too should a domestic violence defendant.

It will be interesting to see if the Manual is in fact updated.  Stay tuned…  Either way, if you are representing yourself, whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant, make sure to inform the court of any true impediments you may have to begin trial on a date provided, such as calling a witness or procuring evidence, prepare a thorough cross-examination of the other party’s witnesses and insist on your right to explore credibility and all issues raised by that witness on direct, and have your evidence pre-marked and a proffer ready to explain to the court why it should be entered.  This does not guarantee success, but it will help with a fair chance.

Lindsay A. Heller is an associate in the firm’s Family Law practice, based in its Morristown, NJ office. You can reach Lindsay at 973.548.3318 or lheller@foxrothschild.com.

Lindsay A. Heller, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLP